Gian Cavaliere is not only Merritt born-and-raised, he’s also never had reason to leave his south central interior digs.
Yet this past week, like just about every member of its citizenry, the Merritt Secondary School vice-principal and proud Panthers athletic director had to vacate his home in the Nicola Valley city, taking up temporary residency in a Kamloops hotel after the entire town was evacuated Monday following the massive and destructive flooding which hit the area.
Yet the mere fact that your author and he are talking via cel phone Saturday morning about the great things still managing to happen in the world of B.C. high school sports is continued testament to its power to overcome, unite and in the end, just keep inspiring all of us who are proud to be counted among its census.
“We’ve have our work Zooms every morning and it’s all tears with so many people losing their homes, and some many being displaced,” begins Cavaliere, struggling at times to tap his emotion.
“We are fortunate that our homes are safe,” he said of his family and those of many of the staff members with whom he works. “But there are others who have lost everything.”
And it’s within that maelstrom that both outreach and co-operation have merged to give at least one team from that devastated region of our province the kind of finality that every season of play so very much deserves, even if it isn’t a provincial championship.
On Saturday, the Merritt Panthers’ junior boys volleyball team, too many times nothing more than a mere after-thought amongst the gigantic schools it competes against at the all-tier JV level, somehow found the right kind of perfect storm… one which allowed them, against huge odds, the opportunity to compete in the Okanagan junior boys championship tournament in nearby Revelstoke.
The inability to find a way to get to the Lower Mainland had earlier scuttled the Merritt swim team’s participation at this weekend’s B.C. aquatic championships.
And given the rapid nature in which families were forced to evacuate their homes Monday, the members of the Panthers’ senior girls volleyball team ticketed for the Okanagan AA championships this past weekend at NorKam Secondary, had already dispersed to locations throughout both B.C. and Alberta by the time the event tipped off.
“But our junior boys had qualified for the Okanagans in Revelstoke, and that was a doable trip,” said Cavaliere. “The coach (Vince Kanigan) really wanted to send the boys, so we got our blessing from the district,” he continued.
The only issue was that the entire team had already dispersed.
“So we called all the parents and said we were still in if they could all drive, and then the parents all bought in,” Cavaliere continued, fighting back his tears as the all-points-bulletin brought Panthers players back from all parts of the Interior and Thompson-Okanagan, as well as one family already on their way to Calgary. “They all turned around and came.”
On Friday, tiny Merritt opened with pool play, and on Saturday, claimed a quarterfinals win over the much-larger Penticton Lakers, fell to the Kelowna Owls 2-0 (25-13, 25-12) in the semifinals, but then turned right around and beat Kelowna’s Okanagan Mission Huskies 2-0 (25-14, 26-24) to place third overall.
“The Kelowna coach was so impressed by our Merritt team,” said Cavaliere of what is the feeder to an Owls’ team looking like a wire-to-wire No. 1-ranked team at the top-tier senior varsity Triple-A level. “He told us he has hundreds and hundreds of Grade 10s to pick from. We have three Grade 10s, three Grade 9s and two Grade 8s on our team.”
And that’s why although the real Super Bowl isn’t until Feb. 13, you would have had a hard time convincing a small group of student-athletes, families and coaches from Merritt that it didn’t take place this past Saturday in the gym at Revelstoke Secondary.
“The community is really backing them… I wish I could drive there to cheer them on,” said Cavaliere, “but I had to stay back and watch my own family.”
Cavaliere, in fact, was on the line from just outside of NorKam Secondary where he and his family were watching the Okanagan girls AA championships his school’s team was supposed to be a part of but could not get back together to take part in following the evacuation.
“One of the teams playing is Summerland Secondary, and I am supporting them personally, because that school’s senior girls team just sent our girls team gift cards, and cards expressing how sorry they felt that we couldn’t make it here because of everything that’s happened.
“And that’s what we’ve seen… so much support from the other schools, their athletes and from other athletic directors.”
As we had begun our chat, Cavaliere, a 1998 Merritt grad, had just learned of the junior boys’ team’s win over Pen Hi on Saturday from fellow Merritt vice-principal Adriane Mouland, herself a 1995 MSS grad.
“She is also the parent of a player on the team and she texted me a point-by-point breakdown because it went down to a third (and final) set,” recounts Cavaliere. “And she was texting all in capitals ‘THIS IS TOO MUCH EMOTION’ and ‘I CAN’T STAY CALM’. Its was humorous but at the same time so emotional.
And perhaps the one aspect too often ignored by the adults?
“The boys were having fun,” he said. “And that is the most important part.”
There is so much tough sledding ahead for all of the families affected by the devastation of the past week, and while human emotion during just such times insures that in any competitive arena, like B.C. high school sports, there will always be some divisiveness.
Thankfully, there is also the view as seen through the eyes of the Merritt Panthers.
Junior boys volleyball teams don’t usually make the headlines, but in the midst of stormy times, they found the right kind of perfect storm, and within it taught us all lessons about why nothing can keep us together through the tough times better than the spirit of high school sports.
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